In March of 2007, local artist Sue Martin went to Georgia to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer, and her father, who is afflicted with Parkinson’s and dementia. During the six months she spent caring for her parents she kept a blog about her experiment in “creative caregiving.” She also worked on a series of paintings about the experience, and these works, along with excerpts from the blog are currently on exhibit at the Sorenson Unity Center through March 31 in an exhibit entitled Legacy.
15 Bytes: Why did you decide to keep the blog?
Sue Martin: One of my biggest fears about leaving home for months to care for my parents was that I would become stressed and unhealthy, both emotionally and physically. I believe living creatively is the antidote to such unhealthiness, so I committed to performing my caregiving duties with as much creative thinking as possible. I started the blog before I left home as a way to examine my feelings and reflect on my experiences, and to allow friends and family to accompany me on my journey.
15 Bytes: How did keeping the blog affect your time with your parents?
Sue Martin: Writing the blog, which took about 20-30 minutes a day, was a brief respite from caregiving. Sometimes I wrote early in the morning before my Dad got up; sometimes I wrote in the middle of the night when my mind was racing and I couldn’t sleep. I found that by articulating my feelings, I was experiencing life – the joys as well as frustrations – more fully. I always tried to find humor in even the saddest or most frustrating times.
15 Bytes: At what point did you decide to start painting about the experience?
Sue Martin: It was not until after Momma passed away that I found time to get out the paints. At that point, my Dad needed a rest from all the running around we had been doing, so while he was napping, or while we were both sitting on the sun porch watching for ducks on the pond, I would paint.
15 Bytes: What did you hope to accomplish at the beginning of that process? And what was the actual result in the end?
Sue Martin: I wanted to capture the stories that friends and family told about Mom — how she got her nickname, Curly; how she loved to garden; her love of dancing; |0| her dedication to caring for Dad. Since I didn’t have a lot of space to work, I started with postcard-size paintings, layering watercolors in abstract patterns, then “finding” the subject with watercolor crayon and gouache. After I came home, I continued the series in larger formats, using acrylic and collage.
15 Bytes: Do you approach your art differently after this project?
Sue Martin: I enjoy mixed media, working expressively, layering colors and texture, and then finding the subject that wants to emerge. Most of the paintings in the series are consistent in that approach. The figures are mostly iconic rather than representations of my parents. But I don’t work that way exclusively; I enjoy more traditional landscapes and portraits, too.
One of the stylistic exceptions in the series is a picture of my father sitting beside my mother’s bed shortly before she died. It was a very difficult painting to do, but it was therapeutic. Unlike the other paintings that are happy stories about Momma, this one is the story of a husband of 61 years who, even with his dementia, did not want to leave his wife’s side.
15 Bytes: You’ve now hung the show and what started out as a personal project has turned into something public. How have you felt about this new stage of the project?
Sue Martin: What surprised me after I started the series, which were personal stories and memories of my mother, was how viewers responded to them. So many people are either dealing with eldercare issues or grieving a loss, and my stories reminded them of their stories. Last weekend I attended the memorial service of a friend’s husband. Every speaker shared stories of Tom, how their lives were changed by their relationship with him. And nearly everyone used the word “legacy” to connote the lasting value of his life each time they will continue to recall those stories.
Each of us creates our legacy in every relationship. Though we can’t totally control what others will remember most about us, we can certainly take responsibility for the way we treat others. “What are the stories you ‘think’ your friends and family will tell about you when you’re gone?” is a question I want viewers to ask themselves. We’re going to experiment with an opportunity for visitors to share some of those stories.
Sharing that last six months of my mother’s life and caring for my father at that fragile time in his life was a great joy and an honor even with all its challenges. Even now, as my 86-year-old father is unable to tell me the day of the week, the month, the year, or where he lives, he still has something to teach me about living and aging with dignity.
Legacy is at the Sorenson Unity Center through March 31. In conjunction with the exhibit, in late march the Unity Center will be holding a public forum on caregiving.